June 14 2014
Zanie (FYF InZane +/) and I have been training all year in preparation for the 40th anniversary edition of the Old Dominion 100 Mile Endurance Ride in Orkney Springs on the rugged mountain trails in the George Washington National Forest straddling Virginia and West Virginia. I was terribly disappointed when I got her up from the pasture on Tuesday morning before the ride and noticed that she had a big scrape across her side right where the saddle, pad and rigging came together. At first I thought I could heal it in time and went to work with some herbal salve but in a day or two I had to admit that it would not be healed enough to take all the friction that would be involved in negotiating the tough terrain of the ride and sadly made the decision not to take her rather than to worry about the outcome.
My thoughts turned to Able (R-Kons Able) who was my up and coming endurance horse. I had started him on a 30 last September and October and he has done 2 50s and 2 55s since then. Could he do it? The hundred? To me the Old Dominion IS the 100 mile ride. I knew he could do the 50 as he had successfully completed the Old Dominion No Frills 55 mile ride at the end of April and in 12th place but could I ask such a new endurance horse to take the challenge? I thought about his strength and the fact that I had been conditioning him on and off for nearly 4 years and realized that he did have the base to tackle the ride safely. Not wanting to miss it I went ahead and committed him to the hundred with the thought that if it was too much I would quit when he had had enough. The conditions turned out to be absolutely perfect with clear skies, temperatures in the 70s and a full moon. I couldn’t have asked for any better for a first hundred!
At the ride briefing the night before I was approached by Claire Godwin who asked if I would be willing to sponsor her junior rider since she had a broken hand and would not be riding. Junior riders 16 and under are required to ride with an adult sponsor for the whole ride. Claire Taylor, who was 16 years old, had attempted two other rides, the 50 and the 100, at the OD but had never completed. She was looking to get the monkey off her back! It sounded like it would be fun to ride with her and I knew I could get her through, not to mention that I would have a buddy for my horse that could not leave me! I agreed to be her sponsor. I was also planning on riding with Ruth Anne Everett, who I have partnered with in the past and really enjoy. We were going to have a fun little team going down the trail. We were all just interested in completing the challenge and really enjoying ourselves.
The moon was coming up when I went to bed, promising light on the trail for the night portion of our ride. I fell asleep easily, comfortable with my decisions for the ride and looking forward to the 5:15 am start. At 3:30AM we were awakened by reveille being played loudly over the sound system followed by some other weird music. Since I had set my alarm for 4AM I was a bit miffed over losing that half hour of sleep but I was up so I went ahead and fed Able and started getting my stuff ready. I saddled Able early to give him a long warm up so he would be ready for the big climbs. I met up with Ruth Anne and went to find Claire and head for the starting line. Ruth Anne’s horse Jax and Able were both very keyed up so she decided not to start with me as the horses were feeding off of each other but we would meet up down the trail or at the vet check. That was fine with me because I could concentrate on Able and get to know Claire and her horse, Salute (owned by Claire Godwin).
At 5:15 the timer announced that the trail was open and we were on our way. We let the frontrunners go and walked quietly out of camp before we picked up an easy trot. The two horses seemed to know they had a job to do. The weather was cool and breezy and the horses felt really good. As they warmed up they picked up some speed and we had to rate them pretty strongly to the first vet check. The trail was pleasant at first as we wound through the woods past a water tower. We came to a clearing where we stopped as the sun was rising to look at the view and take a few pictures. We didn’t talk much at all since we were both concentrating on keeping our horses in control in the crisp morning. Then the climbs and rocks started coming and seemed to never end. After several really rugged, steep mountains and a long rocky ridgeline we came to a forest service road then the trail to Bird Haven, our first vet check at 15.7 miles. We arrived at 7:31 and both horses pulsed down in a few minutes. We had made good time on that first segment that would help us later in the day and night. Ruth Anne was there but she had run into some bad luck losing a horseshoe on the first section. She had gotten it replaced at the vet check and was going to join us for the rest of the ride.
The second leg was really tough with lots of rocky sections. We ascended to a beautiful but rock and boulder strewn trail that followed the spine of a narrow ridge. If there were no trees and shrubs it would look like a trail at Tevis! Laurels lined the trail and were in full bloom, sometimes it was so closed in we had to almost push our way through the laurel. We would catch an occasional view of the countryside below and realize how high up we were. It was spectacular! It was very hard to make time on this section and we trotted wherever we felt we could, even if it was just three steps to take as best advantage of any good footing we could without putting the horse’s soundness at risk. At one point I failed to slow Able in time to avoid a tricky rock pile and he skipped over it but caught one of his glued on boots, which ripped it off. I noticed a few strides later and stopped to replace it with a regular Easyboot Glove. I then became nervous that I might lose another. I had one more boot with me but he takes a different size on the front and back. I had just used his spare front boot so if he lost another front I would be in trouble. I have glued on Easyboot Gloves for 11 hundred mile rides and the only other time I have ever lost one was at the 2011 Old Dominion, convincing me that the OD trail has no prejudice or preference for or against any type of hoof wear, it will rip them off just the same!
Bad luck struck Ruth Anne and Jax again a little later when the newly replaced shoe did not hold and came off leaving Jax with a tattered hoof and increasing lameness. I gave her my remaining Easyboot so that she could hand walk him safely the four or so miles to the next vet check and withdraw. We sadly left her walking and continued down the trail while I tried to text her husband, Mike, and let him know that she would not make it to Buck Tail , which was the next place our crews could meet us. Able, who had spent the night next to Jax at camp, pined for him a while, stopping and looking back to see where he was. We came off the mountain and down to a gravel road leading to Laurel Run, our next stop.
As we were arriving at Laurel Run a woman noticed I was having boot issues and informed me that she had some Easyboots for sale in her truck. She was my angel! Knowing we still had to make it to the next vet check where my extra boots would be, with lots of evil rock on the way, I went ahead and got one of each size that Able wears, just for good insurance. After that I never lost another boot for the whole ride. I guess it was good insurance.
Our crews were not at Laurel Run as it is a small area and crews were not allowed. They had volunteers to help hold your horse and food for horse and rider. Ruth Anne would get a trailer ride back to camp from here and we would continue to Buck Tail where my husband, Bill, and Claire’s parents, Martha and Steve, were waiting for us. Despite the rugged terrain we had made good time with an average speed of almost 7mph thanks to some gravel road that allowed us to trot out and even canter for a few stretches.
As I have done this ride twice before I always leave Laurel Run with a little dread anticipating the five or six mile long climb up a gravel road in the hot sun at midday. The first time I did it the temperatures were in the 90s and it seemed to take hours. This year was not bad as we had a strong cool breeze for relief. I actually sort of enjoyed it as the views were great. There was a pipe coming out of a mountain spring about half way up that they had put a tub under. It offered the horses a well needed cool drink and they took advantage of it gladly. We walked the whole thing to save our horses for later. I think this is where I sang the first song. I have written two songs about endurance riding while I have travelled the long trail alone on a hundred mile ride and this seemed like a good time to sing one and get us through the drudgery of that long climb, in fact, the song is called “The Hundred Mile Ride”. We finally turned off the gravel road onto another laurel laden trail even more beautiful than the last. The trail traveled through boulder fields and areas of stunted trees and the spine was even narrower, sometimes just a few feet wide. It was exhilarating and exciting and even a little scary at times.
I think the trail from Laurel Run must be the longest 13.5 miles on earth as it took us over 3 hours to get to Buck Tail, making it in excess of six hours since we have seen our crews. Bill, Martha, Steve, and Claire Godwin were happy to see us arrive as they had been hanging out there for hours. By now we had travelled 45.6 miles, we were almost halfway there. The horses looked good, they had settled into the ride and had started taking care of themselves by drinking at every opportunity and snatching grass from the side of the trail as we walked. We also took advantage of grassy areas by allowing them to stop and graze for 5 or 10 minutes, keeping their gut sounds healthy and keeping the energy up. We enjoyed an extra long hold of 50 minutes and were able to relax a bit and eat some food. There was lots of drama unfolding as reports of pulls were starting to come in and we wished our fellow riders still in the race all the best of luck and ourselves too. Claire was happy that she had now made it further than she ever had before at the Old Dominion and was hopeful for a finish. Of course, there was still a long trail ahead of us and with “The Beast Of The East”, as they call the Old Dominion, nothing is a guarantee, you have to fight for every mile!
When we left Buck Tail it would be another 25 miles until we would see our crews at Big 92 vet check. Eleven miles into the trail we had a gate and go stop at Waites Run where the horses had to meet the pulse criteria of 64 beats a minute before starting a ten minute mandatory hold to rest and let them eat. It was starting to get warm and the breeze had quit and most of the trail was on a sunny forest service road so I was feeling a little hot and low energy as I was entering my low part of the day. Slightly refreshed after our rest we continued on to Big 92. The other two times I have done the OD this has been my low point too, one time I was quite sick at this point so I did not have a great memory for this section. All I did remember was a long downhill trail that Zanie had rocked and rolled on the last time I was here. What I failed to remember was the long, technical, rocky climb before it that seemed to just go on forever. After leaving Waites Run you make a turn that heads you back towards camp even though you are still 45 miles away but the horses can feel that turn and they pick it up knowing that they are headed home. We made some good time before hitting that rocky mountain where the trail turns back the other way for a while. The horses seemed to just crawl up that mountain, losing all forward momentum and losing all the time we had made up and more. When we finally hit the long downhill forest service road that I had remembered being so fast but we were disappointed to find that it wad completely washed out from the previous years heavy rains. It was covered with bare loose rock and the big gravel they used to try and repair it. There was no time to be made up here, the going was slow and treacherous. We finally made it to the gravel road where our crews at Buck Tail waited several miles away. We arrived around 9pm as the sun was setting and we had now made it to the seventy mile point!
I was feeling better as the evening cooled me off and was looking forward to the night riding. I treated myself to a complete change of clothes as mine were damp and clammy and I did not want to get chilled at night. I knew that the next 8 mile section was mostly gravel road and we would be able to make up some of our lost time. I was not paying attention and did not notice that Claire was having an issue with her horse. He had become a little tight and crampy in his hind end as he rested and the air cooled off. He was passed by the vets but with cautionary statements. Claire G loaded him up on some electrolytes, which he had probably gotten low on, and requested that we walk and baby him to the next vet check expecting him to work out of it. Our hopes of making up time on the gravel road diminished and we resigned ourselves to the long walk.
As we left Big 92 another rider names Denise who we had been leap frogging all day tagged along with us for the night portion of the ride. We set out as dusk was falling and it crossed my mind that I had never ridden Able at night and wondered how he would handle it. I turned on my headlamp and he didn’t care a bit. He just went steady forward into the darkness. He was fine with it and was enjoying the cooling temperatures. Around 10:30 the full moon started to rise over the mountain and the night came alive. We turned our lights off when we were in the open, only using them in the dark woods. The moonlight was bright and we could see well. Here is where we sang my second song, “Run Race Horse Run” to pass the time. We had been saving it for a moment like this! The whip-o-wills began calling and were so loud we almost had to cover our ears. Walking forced us to notice the little things, a birdcall, a gurgling creek, fireflies, bats with glowing eyes and all sorts of night magic. Our new riding friend questioned whether we were going to walk the whole thing, worried that we would not make it in time. I said that we would walk for as long as the horse needed to and I was totally confident that we had the time to do it, having years of experience with pacing when I rode NATRC competitive trail rides. After a while I noticed that Salute was moving much more comfortably so we alternated one minute of trotting with 3 minutes of walking when the trail allowed and soon he seemed totally back to normal. We arrived at Laurel Run for the second time well before the cut off time. Both horses vetted through with all As on their vet cards and we were relieved that Claire’s ride would continue. At this point we only had 20 more miles to the finish line, 13.4 miles back to Bird Haven where we had our first vet check and 6.5 miles to camp. Finishing the Old Dominion 100 seemed well in our grasp.
If you recall my description of the first 2 legs you will remember the difficulty of the trail. Even though these segments shortcutted parts of the trail we had done in the morning I think it kept all the hardest parts. Riding in the darkness made it even tougher. Much of the trail to Bird Haven was single track, technical trail that demanded our complete attention. The horses did great though and handled the terrain well in the dark. We were still taking great care with the horses and would only trot on level ground so Salute would not get stiff again trotting on the up hills or down hills. I kept my eye on my watch and GPS to be sure our pacing was still good. I was surprised to discover that although Able does not seem like he is walking fast he can maintain a 4.5 – 5 mph mile walk on good ground and that would get us there on time. We sang both songs again before we got to Bird Haven and before we knew it we were there.
Once again both horses looked great, they were picking up strength and energy. The vets were pleased with Salute and complimented me highly on Able’s condition and our care on the trail. This was a high moment for me. We both became quite emotional when we realized that we were going to do this thing!
Denise was still with us when we started our last leg, the 6.5 miles to the finish. This trail was slow and rocky and we once again walked most of it. When we hit the water tower that we had passed in the morning and made a turn I could feel that Able knew we were almost home. He felt strong and forward and the last few miles went by quicker than we had expected. Pretty soon I started smelling the turkey farm down the road from camp and knew we were very close. We suddenly hit the gravel road and the last half mile before the finish. As we approached the lights of the finish line at 4:45, with our crews and a few others waiting, the sky was lightening from the oncoming sunrise. Able surged ahead, eager to get there and Denise and Claire had a funny reverse race for the turtle reward. They both got slower and slower and just before crossing the line Claire tucked Salute’s head with the reins and came in last, the celebrated turtle! To finish is to win! Of course we were not officially done until the last vet check, which is always an anxious moment because a horse can stiffen up in the cool night breeze if you are not careful so we put blankets on them and kept them moving on to the vetting area. Both passed with flying colors, fit to continue. We had done it and with 30 minutes to spare! I was so very proud of our ride! I had gotten another first time 100 mile horse (this being my third I have started on the OD trail) through the toughest ride in the East and maybe the country and helped a junior get the monkey off her back!
Thanks to all the volunteers and the ride management that made this incredible ride possible! It’s because of you that we can do what we love! Thanks to my crew, Bill, for helping us get through! It’s a team effort! Also, if you ever have a chance to sponsor a junior, do it! It’s a whole lot of fun!
Happy Trails, Nancy Sluys